News and Commentary from the Scottish Information Commissioner

News and commentary from the Scottish Information Commissioner
March 2015

 
Commissioner's Commentary
Photo of Rosemary Agnew

The two months since I laid my Special Report before the Scottish Parliament: FOI 10 Years On - are the right organisations covered?, have seen active and widespread discussion about the issues raised. If you've read it you will be familiar with the themes:

  • The lack of use of powers to designate new bodies under Section 5 of the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 (FOISA) until last year when Culture and Leisure Trusts were subject to an order.
  • The erosion of the right to information held by Scottish public authorities, particularly as a result of the changes to the way in which public services and functions are delivered.
  • The need to ensure that FOISA remains flexible enough to keep pace with changes, not only in the way in which services are delivered, but also to meet the changing expectations of service users.

The report makes a number of recommendations about reinstating lost information rights, preventing further loss in the future and how we might approach extension of access to information rights to new organisations.

One of the specific recommendations is that Scottish Government considers extending FOI to Housing Associations and I welcome its decision to consult on this in the spring, with a view to potentially making a further order to extend in the autumn.

Extension of FOI is not the only development in Scotland's information landscape. As you will see from the news section, there is plenty going on, including the launch of the Scottish Government's Open Data Strategy. We think Open Data and the duty to publish information through a publication scheme are complementary and over the coming months we will be considering whether we can enhance our publication scheme guidance and the Model Publication Scheme to help authorities.

We have also been busy thinking about the information that we ourselves publish, and how we can make this as accessible and informative as possible. As regular readers will recall, I made a commitment to update our exemption and exception briefings this year. I am pleased to announce that guidance on section 25 of FOISA has been updated. Our guidance on the exemptions in sections 26 to 29 is currently being updated and will be published soon. More updates are planned over the coming year. The updates take account of changes in the law, published decisions and lessons learned. We are also separating out FOISA and EIRs guidance (look out for exceptions guidance later this year). We think all of this makes the briefings more user-friendly.

We are keen to hear what you think about the new guidance and welcome your comments and feedback.

As 2014-15 draws to a close, I have been reflecting on what has been a busy, and I think successful, year for FOI. Four things really stand out for me: the work we have done (and continue to do) on our website design and content; the changes to assessment heralded by the introduction of the new Self-Assessment Toolkit; the development and delivery of our Regional Roadshows; and the collection and collation of authority FOI statistical information through the Statistics Portal.

The underlying aim of all of these initiatives has been to add value for authorities and requesters, to help improve both FOI practice and the FOI experience.

The Self-Assessment Toolkit aims to equip authorities with the resources to assess and improve their FOI performance and practice. We are happy to provide what support and advice we can, but recognise the greatest innovations come from practitioners and users themselves. I am grateful to the authority practitioners who acted as critical friends in the development of the modules (you know who you are: thank you).

The Regional Roadshows have been very well-received. The events held in the Western Isles, Stirling and the Scottish Borders brought together practitioners and other interested stakeholders from the public sector, media and third sector. By tailoring the content to the needs of those attending each event, we have been able to deliver what you tell us is needed, not just what we think is needed. On a personal level, I have really enjoyed meeting so many of you and hearing about your experiences first-hand. I am already getting excited about the 2015-16 programme, to be issued soon.

     

Rosemary Agnew's signature

Rosemary Agnew
Scottish Information Commissioner

 
Compliance, good practice and lessons learned
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Our Decisions Round-up sets out the learning points from decisions published each week, and gives a brief summary of each case. In February we also started to include a monthly round-up of the cases we've resolved informally (i.e. settled without the need for a formal decision) so that you can see the range of cases that can be approached in this way. We hope that by including the resolved cases it will further help requesters to make more focused information requests and authorities to improve both their practice and their relationships with requesters. You can see the first round-ups including resolved cases at:

It is interesting to note from these round-ups, that many of the issues focus on communication. Authorities that take the time to explain to requesters how they come to conclusions on a request will often resolve issues without the need for the requester to ask for a review (or to appeal to the Commissioner).

  • Authorities, be open and transparent by providing helpful, meaningful and timely advice and assistance, and you might just avoid that review or appeal.
  • Requesters, don't be afraid to ask the authority for advice before appealing to the Commissioner. The authority has a duty to provide advice and assistance and it may be able to give a very simple explanation that could save you the trouble of having to appeal.

We'd like to get your feedback on this enhancement. How useful have you found it? Contact us and let us know what you think.

Learning points from recent decisions include:

  • Requesters, understand the relationship between FOI and personal data. Remember, you can't get your own personal data under FOI and if you are looking for other people's personal data, the authority must be satisfied that disclosure is consistent with the DPA, so may need to ask you for additional information. See Decisions Round-up: 09 to 20 February 2015 and Decisions Round-up: 2 to 6 March 2015 for more details.

You can subscribe to the round-up at www.itspublicknowledge.info/signup.

 
Our work at a glance
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Month

Enquiries

New
Applications

Total
number of
valid cases
closed

Cases closed
with a decision
notice

Settled /
withdrawn during
investigation

Apr

141

49

23

16

7

May

204

40

32

24

8

Jun

140

42

37

26

11

Jul

125

49

37

28

9

Aug

163

35

29

18

11

Sep

133

36

34

23

11

Oct

140

42

24

19

5

Nov

145

33

31

24

7

Dec

80

40

19

14

5

 Jan

137 

40

23

15

8

 Feb

155 

25

19

12

7

Year to Date

1,563

431

308

219

89

As you will know from earlier editions of Inform, we monitor applications about failure to respond to requests and reviews (FTR for short). In January's edition we told you about the improving picture, with the number of valid FTR applications reducing from its peak in June 2014. We continue to see improvements, with February passing a milestone. It was the first month this operational year (and for a very long time) there were no valid FTR applications (that's right, not a single one!). Naturally we are pleased, but authorities you should take the credit. If you are one of the authorities that has been subject to FTR applications and have made practice improvements, we'd love to hear from you so we can learn from, and share, your ideas.

If you would like to self-assess your authority's practice in responding on time, you might want use Module 1 of our Self-assessment Toolkit.

For those of you who like comparisons and trends you might be interested to know that, with only one month left in the 2014-15 operational year, it looks like we will see the first drop in the number of applications to the Commissioner for a number of years. They are down by 18% on the same point last year. The number of enquiries has also dropped by 15%.

Although it is challenging to identify the reasons for this reduction, we think that a number of factors have contributed, such as, the reduction in the second half of the year in FTR applications and the impact of the Referendum. We will of course be keeping a close eye on it and will be commenting on it in our Annual Report.

For more information about our operational performance, click here.

 

 
News in Brief
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Publication scheme re-adoptions

It's four years since bodies listed under Part 7 of Schedule 1 to the FOI Act, and all publicly-owned companies adopted the Model Publication Scheme (MPS). Approval for current schemes expires on 31 May 2015. These organisations were recently notified that the new 2015 MPS, and updated guidance, is now available on our website. If you have any queries about adopting the new MPS, please call the Policy and Information Team on 01334 464610.

 

Petition to extend FOI to housing associations

In October 2014 a public petition was lodged, proposing all housing associations are made subject to FOISA. The petition is under active consideration by the Public Petitions Committee. The Scottish Government has responded to the Committee, confirming its intention to consult on extension of FOI in the spring, once it has considered the Commissioner's Special Report. The Government has also indicated that it hopes to be able to lay a further order extending FOISA before Parliament in the autumn.

 


 Centre for FOI Practitioners' Conference

 Keep the date!

The Centre for FOI Practitioners' Conference will once again be held at the University of Dundee, on Tuesday 19 May 2015. This popular event is an opportunity for FOI practitioners to learn about new developments; share experience and good practice; and develop stronger networks.

Programme and booking information will be available shortly on the Centre's website www.centrefoi.org.uk. Previous conferences have included sessions on: searching for information, pro-active publication, environmental information and responding to FOI requests for personal information. If there's anything in particular you'd like to see included in the programme, let us know soon.

 


Regional roadshows update

Delegates from public authorities across the Scottish Borders, and nearby, attended our latest FOI Roadshow at Newtown St Boswells on 20 March. The day featured presentations aimed at helping authorities fulfil their FOI responsibilities as effectively as possible. Sessions included: training, interactive voting and discussions with Rosemary and her team on a wide range of practical topics. By the end of the day, the overwhelming majority of delegates told us that they were both better equipped to handle requests, and more confident about doing so.

We're planning to continue our Roadshow programme into 2015-16, and will announce details of the areas we'll be visiting shortly. Watch this space... 


Scottish Government's Open Data Strategy

The Scottish Government's Open Data Strategy was published on 25 February 2015. It sets out the Scottish Government's ambition for making non-personal and non-commercially sensitive data generated by public services open and available for others to use and reuse. The Open Data Strategy recognises the benefits that this will bring to society.

The Strategy sets out five national actions to support organisations in implementing their own Open Data publication plans:

  1. Development of a resource pack to support the Strategy
  2. Provision of a procurement framework offering training
  3. Scope out and establish a Scottish Data Discovery Site (to provide one place for individuals to go to access open data from across Scotland)
  4. Undertake engagement with potential users of open data to understand the types and themes, and
  5. Promote awareness of the Re-Use of Public Sector Information Regulations 2015.

Public authorities already publish information proactively under FOI publication schemes, and we provide both guidance and a Model Publication Scheme (MPS). We will be giving thought to how we can support authorities in implementing Open Data within their organisations, in particular whether there is scope to update the MPS and supporting guidance.

Read the Open Data Strategy to find out more about how you can get involved.

 


 
Don't forget...
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You can view our own internal guidance and procedures for responding to information requests. These might help you when reviewing or developing your own practice and procedures. For details, use this link to find our guidance under, Our Procedures: Responding to Information Requests: Guidance and Procedures.
 
Contact us
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The Commissioner's staff are pleased to provide information, support and advice on any issue relating to freedom of information. We also welcome your feedback, including about our website and Inform newsletter. Contact us at:

Scottish Information Commissioner, Kinburn Castle, Doubledykes Rd, St Andrews, KY16 9DS

Website: www.itspublicknowledge.info

Telephone: 01334 464610

Email: enquiries@itspublicknowledge.info

Fax: 01334 464611

You can unsubscribe from Inform by emailing us on the above address, typing "Unsubscribe from Inform" in the subject box.

 
 
 
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